Maya Rudolph's 'Maya & Marty' Can Learn From The Comedy Of Carol Burnett
With her new NBC variety show Maya & Marty, Maya Rudolph is positioning herself as a Carol Burnett for a new generation. It certainly seems like a role Rudolph is destined to play, seeing as this isn't her first variety show. Her 2014 one-night only special, The Maya Rudolph Show, was a present day take on the genre that had her joking, singing, and dancing the way Burnett did in the '70s. But the debut of Rudolph's new show, which has her teaming up with Martin Short for the summer, lacks the snap, crackle, and pop of The Carol Burnett Show and too often feels like Saturday Night Live lite. This isn't to say the show is bad, because Rudolph will never have a problem making things funny. But, to take this show to another level, the comedian needs take a page from Burnett's book and really be the funny person we already know she is. And that means playing to her considerable strengths as an entertainer.
The format of Maya & Marty's premiere was simple: comedy sketches, digital videos, musical performances, big-named special guests. It's a lot of what Rudolph and Short were doing on SNL. But there was a sense with the premiere that these two didn't have a clear idea of how they wanted to transfer what they had done so well on Saturday night to a Tuesday night. A slot in primetime means you have the chance for more eyes, but it also means you're getting a wider range of eyes that may enjoy a more mainstream style of comedy.
This doesn't mean Rudolph has to change her style of humor — her impressions of Beyoncé and Oprah are perfect for this kind of crowd — but she has to find a way to translate it to a new, not necessarily Saturday Night Live-watching audience. This is where learning from Burnett could help, since she managed to find a way to make adults and their kids laugh at the same time, while still doing her own brand of smart comedy.
Burnett's show was built on familiar pop culture touchstones that the star managed to make feel new. There's a reason people still talk about her 1976 parody of Gone With the Wind that has her wearing a dress with a curtain rod in it. Like Scarlett O'Hara, Burnett made her dress from the curtains, but, unlike Scarlett, the dress still looked like a curtain. The joke may be a simple visual one, but Burnett makes it work. That was always the thing about Burnett; she could take the absurd and make it seem witty. In simpler terms, she was confident that what she found funny would also be funny to others; no matter how ridiculous it may have seemed.
Rudolph doesn't need to reinvent the variety show; she just needs to bring more of herself to the genre. This means rebooting old characters from her SNL days. Her impressions are one of her biggest assets, and she shouldn't be afraid to use them again. She's great at being the butt of the joke, who manages to keep a straight face throughout the absurdity of it all. Rudolph proved this in a sketch called "The War In Words: Letters From The Front," which had her playing a wife who had a lot of trouble getting specific in her written correspondence with her soldier husband.
She writes a knock-knock joke, which doesn't really work in letter form. She forgets to tell her husband that she had a baby. And, to top it all off, she sends a picture of her laughing with President Abraham Lincoln, but doesn't put it into context. It's a simple premise, but Rudolph sells it by keeping a straight face. It's silly, sure, but there's a lot of heart and sweetness in this idea of this flighty woman just not getting it.
Heart is a big part of why Burnett was so popular with so many people. Her characters were flawed, but they were good and they were familiar. She wasn't picking on anyone, but instead bringing some humanity to these characters that seemed plucked out of everyday life. Just think of all the laughs Burnett got out of "The Family" sketch, which was a family that probably wasn't so outlandish to those who were watching. We all know a mama like Mama, who just can't help but hand out backhanded compliments. We've all felt like Eunice, who's trying so hard to deal with her nagging mom that she may be more like than she'd want to admit. This sketch was all about being relatable; anyone who was watching could see themselves in this sketch and still be able to laugh.
Rudolph also has a knack for playing characters that are flawed, but lovable. She got some of her biggest laughs as a drunk bunny named Karen who's just trying to find Dave, her bunny with benefits. Unfortunately, she ends up at the house of a little old nana (Short) reading Goodnight Moon to his granddaughter, played by Miley Cyrus. Karen felt like a callback to one of Rudolph's best SNL sketches "Bronx Beat," which has her playing a woman named Jodi from the Bronx with a public access show. Jodi's accent alone could have made this sketch funny, but it's hilarious because of the lovable way Rudolph plays Jodi as a woman who repeatedly gets ferklempt when talking about her husband, who she loves despite his flaws. It's really funny, but it's also hilariously real.
Whether Rudolph is playing someone from the Bronx or a bunny looking to smash, she knows, like Carol Burnett did, that the audience needs to connect with the character in a way that makes them an underdog, not a loser. Rudolph understands that humor is about punching up and doesn't look to make fun of those who can't defend themselves. Her humor is about being inclusive and laughing together at the silly things all of us do. It's why these moments — the flighty letter-writing wives and bunnies who want to hook up — prove Rudolph can revive the old-fashioned variety show in a way that's perfect for 2016. She can pick up where The Carol Burnett show left off. She just needs to have more of these real, heartfelt moments in her comedy on Maya & Marty if she wants to convince the audience.
Photo: Virginia Sherwood/NBC; Giphy